Swamps, Snakes & Sawyers: Logging Data on Liberia’s Forests
In February 2016, a team from Building Markets traveled to Maryland County in southeastern Liberia to meet with stakeholders and conduct research. This included collecting data for our next Extractive Overview Report on the forestry sector, which will be released later this year. Nearly 20% of the MSMEs Building Markets works with are in the Construction and Renovation sector but data is limited, thus illustrating the need to conduct a domestic timber value chain analysis.
We had been walking along the narrow path for nearly forty minutes, winding between fields of sugar cane before entering a swampy forest. As we progressed the canopy cover became increasingly dense, blocking the sun and trapping the humidity; the buzz of humming chainsaws grew louder, and the path was reduced to submerged logs stretched across expanses of marsh. A young man walked by us in the opposite direction with a freshly cut, fourteen-foot plank of wood resting on his head. Despite the oppressive heat and very real threat of snakes lurking in the murky waters, it wasn’t difficult to pay attention to Moses, our guide into the forest, telling the story of his background and business.
In the 1980s, Moses worked for the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), a Malaysian-headquartered logging company that exported significant volumes of raw logs from Liberia abroad. The Liberian civil war broke out in 1989 and Moses fled across the border to Côte d’Ivoire, returning when the UN brokered an uneasy peace that lasted from 1997 until 1999. During this time Moses received training in carpentry from an NGO that provided vocational education to war-affected youth. He set up a furniture-making shop with a small grant and procured timber from the logging companies still operating in the area.
In 2003, UN sanctions on logging companies and a lack of government regulation led to an explosion of chainsaw logging, colloquially known as pit-sawing, in Liberia’s forests. Moses purchased his first chainsaw in 2006 for $1,750 USD when he could no longer profitably acquire timber from local markets for his carpentry business.
Pit-sawing is a traditional, albeit informal, feature of the Liberian forestry sector. Groups of people fell trees and use a chainsaw to convert the logs into planks. Pit sawyers manually carry the planks to a road, as the young man with whom we had crossed paths was doing, for transport to market. Along the roads to Monrovia the Forestry Development Authority collects fees and issues waybills that permit transport to the capital. This means that planks from unregulated pit-sawing enter a formal market value chain once they are transported to timber markets; however, the volume of sawn-timber that is felled at the source and the volume that arrives in Monrovia is currently unknown.
Though MSMEs in the Construction and Renovation sector make up almost one-fifth of businesses using Building Markets’ services, data on these economic activities is limited in general. The demand for timber, both in terms of volume and quality, from these construction and furniture-making MSMEs is unclear. Moreover, the value added to sawn timber by these MSMEs is also unknown.
To address this lack of information, Building Markets is excited to announce its comprehensive study to uncover the dynamics, actors, volumes and economic values associated with this complex value chain that is integral to the Liberian economy. The quantitative data we collect and analyze will elucidate the value, size and impacts of the domestic timber value chain; additionally, this research will help us to identify opportunities for Liberian MSMEs, such as the carpentry shop that Moses owns, to increase value-added activities.
There is currently a strategic window of opportunity for policy and regulatory change in Liberia, and our research will also support these high-level policy discussions. Proposed policy and legal reforms aim to formalize and regulate the informal chainsaw logging sector. Simultaneous efforts are ongoing to sustain forests and empower communities to manage forests. At the same time, the government of Liberia and development partners are looking at woodworking as a viable sector to increase value addition and promote linkages to regional markets.
Depending on the regulations and strategies chosen, and the degree to which they are enforced, there will be winners and losers along the entire domestic timber value chain. Our research will help guide the formulation of actionable policies and allow stakeholders to mitigate the negative impacts of chosen policies and accompanying enforcement, as well as enhance the positive effects.
After meeting Moses’ chainsaw operators and assistants, who were portioning a felled tree into planks deep in the swamp, we made the long trek back to the road. Moses reflected on his pit-sawing operation as we walked. The forest in Maryland where he operates has been largely decimated, and he knows that in a few years there will be no more trees to fell. He’ll seek forests in other counties when that happens. While the work that goes into a pit-sawing operation is grueling and profits are minimal, Moses doesn’t have alternative means of sustaining a livelihood. Building Markets’ forestry research will facilitate evidence-based decision making to support sustainably managed forests, efficient markets, profitable linkages and, most importantly, MSMEs and entrepreneurs like Moses that depend on domestically harvested timber to make a living.
 Name changed to protect individual’s identity.